Cortez Allen at the Crossroad – Kevin Colbert’s Choice

Once upon a time, the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted a cornerback in the third round.

His rookie year he mainly played special teams, but even then flashed greatness. Coaches and fans alike expected great things going into year two, yet the up and coming 3rd rounder failed to crack the starting lineup. Nonetheless, in his third year he did earn a starting slot, and even began shadowing opponents’ top receiver.

  • Inconsistency aside, the third rounder left the Steelers with a difficult choice.

Six years later, the Steelers took another corner in the third round. He little as a rookie year, sitting behind sixth rounder. He played more in his second year, but disappointed nonetheless. Many coaches wrote him off as a lost cause. Yet, in his third year, his play improve dramatically, leaving the Steelers with another difficult choice….

If you haven’t guessed it already, the two third round corners in question are none other than Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis, and the choice they both left the Steelers was whether or not to commit long-term money based on a three year body of work.

  • The Steelers ponied up big money to lock Ike Taylor down long-term, prior to the 2006 season

And although he faltered in that campaign, earning himself a slot of Bill Cowher’s dog house, he bounced back with Mike Tomlin’s arrival and the organization hasn’t looked back since.

  • The Steelers declined to offer Keenan Lewis a long-term deal and allowed him to play out the final year of his rookie contract. Lewis blossomed into an good if not great NFL corner in his fourth year.

The Steelers, hamstrung in salary cap purgatory, were unable to make Lewis and offer, Lewis left, and Steelers Nation has suffered buyers remorse since.

All This Has Happened Before, and Will Again…

This experience is important, because Kevin Colbert is now faced with a very  similar situation with yet another inconsistent, yet up and coming corner in the form of Cortez Allen.

The Steelers drafted Cortez Allen out of the Citadel in the 4th round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Unlike Taylor and Lewis, Cortez Allen saw playing time as a rookie, play a key role in the defensive effort that led to the Steelers Halloween upset of the New England Patriots.

Allen made a bull rush at Keenan Lewis for the starting job, but Lewis held him off. Allen’s name didn’t get mentioned much during the disappointing 2012 season, yet as the rest of the team was floundering, Allen flourished. Vs. the Bengals, Allen picked off two passes and forced a fumble, and vs. the Browns Allen forced two more fumbles.

  • In two games, Allen single handedly accounted for the lion’s share of the Steelers takeaways.

Even if that stat says a lot about the Steelers defense chronic inability to generate turnovers, it also shows Allen’s game-changing potential, and that was one reason why the Steelers let Lewis go.

  • Yet, like Taylor and Lewis before him, Cortez Allen has weaved threads of inconsistency into his own story.

Allen won the starting job was expected during Steelers 2013 training camp, yet got injured vs. Tennessee. His return in London vs. the Vikings is something that Steelers Nation would rather forget as he managed to both get burned and miss tackles on long touchdown plays.

Indeed, as the Steelers began their rebound, it was William Gay, (dubbed “Big Play Willie Gay” by my friend Tony Defeo), who won the accolades as Allen reverted to the bench. But Allen didn’t take his demotion sitting down, and recorded two interceptions and a crucial pick-six in the win over Green Bay.

What to Do About Allen?

Since the advent of free agency in 1993, the Steelers have made it their practice to resign the players the want to keep in the final year of their contracts. On a few occasions, think Levon Kirkland and of course Kordell Stewart, this has gotten them into commitments to players who ultimately proved unworthy.

  • But by an large, the philosophy has paid the Steelers dividends both on the field and on the salary cap ledger.

Now they need to decide if they want to do the same with Allen.

Some number are helpful

cortez allen keenan lewis ike taylor steelers stats
Cortez Allen compared to Taylor, Lewis

Of the three players, Ike Taylor had both the most solid body of work and the most consistent line of development. Lewis’ first two years were for naught, and his third year while solid, hardly projected “spectacular.”

However, compared to Lewis, Allen’s third year was gang busters, and while he’s lacked Taylor’s consistency, he arguably authored more splash plays in his limited time than Taylor’s entire career – save of course for Super Bowl XL.

The Steelers also have greater salary cap flexibility here in the summer of 2014 than they did in the summer of 2010.

Curtain’s Call

There are no guarantees in pro football. But Ike Taylor is probably playing is final year, and William Gay is the only other Steelers cornerback with experience. The Steelers aren’t going to offer nor will Cortez Allen’s agent allow him to sign, a low-ball, long term offer. Yet, the Steelers almost certainly keep him off the market in July or August 2014 for far less than he will command in come March 2015.

Ultimately, Carnell Lake, Dick LeBeau and Mike Tomlin know Allen and his work habits.

If he is in fact as diligent as he’s said to be, then the Steelers would be wise to resign him this off season.

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The Colbert Record: 0 for 0 – Steelers 2008 vs. 2009 Draft – Do Numbers Lie?

Numbers never lie. But sometimes they fail to tell the full story.

That bit of dictum has been thrown around a lot here on Steel Curtain Rising. And the conventional wisdom on the Steelers 2008 and 2009 drafts reveals why it is so relevant.  Exhibit A:

John Steigerwald’s logic seems irrefutable. The 2014 Steelers will field exactly ZERO members from either of their 2008 and 2009 drafts, ergo Pittsburgh has done a petty pathetic job of picking players. Steigerwald is known for his bare knuckles, semi-sensationalistic style, but he’s got company.

  • Traditional meat and potatoes beat writer Ed Bouchette, but began a recent column declaring the Steelers had laid two eggs in these drafts.

The ghosts of the 2008 draft and 2009 draft haunted the Steelers during their twin 8-8 seasons and arguably in their ’11 season too. Steelers Nation might hear echoes of those ghosts in 2014 too.

But even if we do, there’s a stark difference in the quality of those two drafts. Mark Kabloy gets it.

@Steigerworld Actually, 2009 draft was great. 7 are still in league; 4 are starters; 2 are making a ton of money … just not with steelers
— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly_Trib) March 13, 2014

An more accurate description of the two drafts might be “The Wash and the One That Got Away.”

’08 Draft Puts Pittsburgh Behind Eight Ball

Little more need be said here about the Steelers 2008 Draft. With Ryan Mundy and Rashard Mendenhall’s departure’s last year, the 2008 draft’s status shifted from disappointing to “Loss.”

Outside of those two, neither the Steelers nor the NFL got anything. Limas Sweed, Bruce Davis, and Tony Hills were unmitigated busts.

Steelers 2009 Draft, the One that Got Away

The record reflects that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin, despite the handicap of picking last in each round, picked some pretty good players in 2009. The Steelers even got some value out of them. The problem is the rest of the NFL is getting more.

  • It might be unfair, but one player can and sometimes does define a draft. 

Look no further than 2004 when the Steelers got Ben Roethlisberger. That pick alone makes the draft an unqualified success, even if Max Starks was the only other player of consequence taken then.

First round picks don’t necessarily define a draft, 2002 was Kevin Colbert’s best all around but Kendall Simmons was far from the most valuable player taken. So it’s unfair to heap disappointment on Ziggy Hood, but it happens nonetheless. Had Hood grow into the player he teased he might have been in late 2010, perceptions would be different.

  • Alas, Hood’s late 2010 surge was a flash instead of a sustainable stride.

Ziggy Hood wasn’t a bust. He just wasn’t good enough for a first round pick. And in that sense Hood does set the tone for the value the Steelers realized from the 2009 draft – Too little or too late or too little shelf life.

Too Short of a Shelf Life

Mike Wallace falls into the too little shelf life category. For all his faults, Wallace is a legit home run threat, and delivered great value as a third round pick.

  • Mike Wallace was a fantasy owners wet dream. 

But fantasy stats don’t show things like refusing to contest underthrown balls that instead get intercepted.  Knowing that, the Steelers were happy to let Miami overpay. It was a smart move, but it is also requiring them to look to the draft for more receivers.

David Johnson was another with too short a shelf life. A versatile player, he was working himself into a model “late round pick makes good” story until injuries ruined his 2012 and 2013 seasons. Now he’s in San Diego.

A.Q. Shipley falls into this category by default. A Penn State player with local ties, Kevin Colbert justified the pick of someone short on measurable saying you couldn’t measure a man’s heart. He stayed on the Steelers 2009 practice squad, but declined a futures contract when his coach Larry Zierlin left. He’s now starting in Baltimore….

Too Late….

Keenan Lewis’ rookie year was marred by injuries. During his second year he was most notable famous for smashing a sign in Denver. By 2011, according to Rebecca Rollet’s report at Behind the Steel Curtain, the coaches had given up.

  • However, new arrival Carnell Lake wasn’t hearing any of it. 

Took him under his wing. Lewis contributed as a nickel and dime back in 2011 and established himself as a pass defense demon in 2012. Alas, the Steelers were caught short in salary cap space and had to let him walk without an offer. If only the Steelers had gotten something out of him sooner….

Kraig Urbik’s story shifted from “just in time” to “too late” in the matter of 1 game, thanks to Byron Leftwich’s sprained knee. The move forced the Steelers to keep Charlie Batch, cutting Urbik instead. That was a shame, because Urbik had made the second year leap, having shown something at guard and knocked Justin Hartwig down to third on the depth chart at center.

The Steelers thought they could sneak Urbik on to the practice squad, but Dough Waley knew better and now Urbik is starting for Buffalo.

Too Little…

Frank “The Tank” Summers was the draft pick with the catchy name in 2009. His lone moment as a Steeler was a very poor block in the backfield followed by “back surgery.” He got beaten out in camp in 2010, hung around on practice squads, and now he is the Bills fullback.

Joe Burnett looked good in camp in 2009 and got into the line up late in the year, but was famous more for dropped interception than anything else. Couldn’t make the final roster in 2010 and had no practice squad eligibility.

When the Steelers cut Sunny Harris at the end of camp, and Ed Bouchette compared him Dwaine Board (although he denied it later). Harris got picked up by Carolina, resigned by Pittsburgh, spent time on the Steelers practice squad in 2010, and was cut in 2011 but picked up by Houston. Low expectations await 6th round picks, but Harris ultimately fell short of those.

Steelers Loss is NFL’s Gain

At its core, the story of the Steelers 2009 reveals the complex, non-scientific, nature of personnel decision making in the NFL, and proves that timing and “luck” are often the ultimate trump cards.

  • 7 players still in the NFL, at least 4 starting and two playing on big 2nd contracts say that the Steelers made pretty good picks in 2009.

The problem is the rest of the NFL can attest to the fact from 1st hand experience.

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Steelers Free Agent Focus: Investment in Al Woods Goes Up in Smoke….

While Mike Mitchell’s arrival might have signaled the rejuvenation of the Steelers secondary, Al Woods departure to the Tennessee Titans confirms that Pittsburgh has a problem on defensive line.

  • Let’s get one things straight. Al Woods was no world beater. His absence certainly shouldn’t doesn’t doom the Steelers chances for 2014

But Wood’s defection is troubling for a number of reasons nonetheless.

Steelers Defensive Line Depth Now and Issue

The first involves the question of depth of the Steelers defensive line. Cam Heyward is budding star. Steve McLendon didn’t make anyone forget he wasn’t Casey Hampton, but his play is probably more solid than many outsiders give him credit.

  • After that the Steelers have no depth on defensive line.


In the short term the loss of Woods can bring a positive in the return of Brett Keisel. But Keisel is 36 and has a year left in him at most. Ziggy Hood also remains an option. However, Hood is visiting with other NFL teams, and was not expected back prior to free agency.

Regardless, the Pittsburgh Steelers have a hole to fill on defensive line. The Steelers could draft a lineman, but Hampton is the only defensive lineman to start and contribute as a rookie since Bill Cowher’s arrival in 1993.

The Steelers have had somewhat better luck with free agent defensive lineman during John Mitchell’s tenure, in the form of Ray Seals and Nolan Harrison. But the free agent market on defensive lineman is thin – hence the interest in Woods and Hood.

Long Term Issue

The other troubling aspect to Wood’s departure is for what it represents in the long term. The Steelers picked up Woods in 2010 after he was cut by Tampa Bay. The process repeated itself in 2011. Woods didn’t hold down a regular roster spot in 2012, and only then got spot duty. Finally, in 2013 he became part of the rotation.

Woods was listed as starting two games last year. He saw regular action at both defensive end and nose tackle and recorded two sacks and defensed two passes.

  • At the very worst, Woods was developing into a viable 4th defensive lineman in a 3-4 scheme.
  • At best, he was clawing his way towards a starting role.

In short, the Steelers invested a lot of time in developing and training Woods and now Tennessee will benefit from that.

Make no mistake about it, Steel Curtain Rising is not crying victim here. Al Woods should get whatever money he can get. And at 2.5 million dollars a year, he likely got in Nashville what he couldn’t get in Pittsburgh.

But coming on the heels of Keenan Lewis last year, this is the second time in two years the Steelers have acted as a veritable farm system for other NFL teams. This was common in the 1990’s of course, but ended with the opening of Heinz Field.

  • Now the Steelers salary cap situation has them repeating history. And not for the better.

To some degree or another this was unavoidable. It’s easy to say the Steelers should have gotten Woods under contract before letting him test the market. Woods agent knew full well what the market would bear and advised his client accordingly.

Regardless, its frustrating to see the Steelers invest Woods to see it all go up in smoke.

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Rumored NFL Salary Cap Increase a Boon for the Steelers, If It Happens

When Steelers Nation hears the words “Salary Cap” and “Steelers” together that is usually bad news. That’s not so today:

The Steelers, for any number of reasons have found themselves over the cap, by a wide margin, since the 2011 NFL Lockout ended.

  • The Steelers have responded by restructuring contracts. 

While the move has been unavoidable, it is a form of mortgaging the franchise’s future, it has restricted their options tremendously.

It says here that if the Steelers cap situation had been healthy, Keenan Lewis would still call Pittsburgh his home. If press reports are any indication, the Steelers are seriously considering cutting LaMarr Woodley, a move that would result in a tremendous dead money salary cap hit

  • Yet the Steelers got some good news today.

The NFL’s 2014 Salary Cap figures were leaked and the cap is projected to rise approximately 5%. While that may not appear to be a huge increase, it already makes the Steelers situation much more manageable.

Prior today’s announcement, the Steelers were reportedly 13 million over the 2014 cap. The uptick in the cap, if Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain’s figures are correct, means the Steelers are no only 8 million over the cap.

Can you say Levi Brown? Levi Brown, the player the Steelers traded for who never played a down, is set to cost 6.2 million against the 2014 cap. Going into the off season Brown’s status as a cap casualty was a foregone conclusion. Now the move will deliver much more value, essentially wiping out ¾’s of the Steelers cap overrun in one move.

  • Serious salary cap work remains for the Steelers.

The Steelers don’t simply need to get to the cap, they need to leave space to sign their draft class and sign some of their free agents.

But the move gives them more flexibility. They’ll still need to do some restructures, but hopefully they’ll need fewer of those and the ones the do will not cut as deep.

Things Don’t Happen Until They Do

Dale Lolley spoke with Kevin Colbert about the increase. While Colbert welcomed it, he was quick to caution that “Those numbers start floating around, but they haven’t been substantiated.”

That’s a good word to the wise.

Salary cap information is hard to come by. Its not has hard to fathom as the NFL’s compensatory draft pick system, but immediately after the 2011 CBA, the word was that 2011, 2012, and 2013 were projected as “Flat cap” years with the cap expected to rise after that. But since the “Flat Cap Era” has been pronounced.

Things don’t happen until they happen.

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Watch Tower: Joe Starkey Perpetuates the Ike Taylor vs. Keenan Lewis Myth

Old-school football purists took heart from Super Bowl XLVIII because it proved the dominating defense has a plays in today’s NFL. For Steelers fans that reality was sobering because it revealed just how far the Steelers defense has fallen. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Joe Starkey took the occasion to make a poignantly valid critique of the “Stained Curtain.”

Starkey’s conclusion is largely correct, but in reaching it he helps purvey a myth that is gaining currency within Steelers Nation and the Watch Tower takes a look….

Steelers Defense in Decline

Starkey minces no words:  The Steelers defense died in Super Bowl XLV at the hands of Aarron Rogers. He then cites steep declines in killer key defensive performance indicators sacks, interceptions, fumble recoveries, and rush defense.

  • Given stats, perhaps “Stained Curtain” is too tame a term to coin.

While it was less blunt, Steel Curtain Rising drew similar lessons from Super Bowl XLVIII (if you, my beloved reader, can entertain the legal fiction that Steel Curtain Rising and the Watch Tower are in fact separate).

  • But if the conclusion is not up to question, some of Starkey’s reasoning however is.

The core of the Watch Tower’s bone with Starkey lies in a key observation he makes regarding recent Steelers personnel decisions.

Colbert and Tomlin allowed cornerback Keenan Lewis to walk without an offer while retaining Ike Taylor and his exorbitant cap hits. [Emphasis Added.]

Before breaking down the nuances of Starkey’s statement, let’s be clear:  While it may not grow to Dan Marino proportions, doubtlessly decision to let Lewis leave will haunt the Steelers. Lewis was clearly  blooming into a top cornerback, and cornerback who should have stayed a Steeler.

  • That remains true even if Cortez Allen grows into the player the Steelers thought they had when they chose him over Lewis….

…Wait. Was the choice the Steelers made last year to take Allen over Lewis or was the choice about taking take Taylor over Lewis?

If you’re confused, you should be, because the story is changing before our very eyes, and that’s where the Watch Tower shines its lights.

In the Midst of Some Revisionist History?

A year ago, the talk out of the South Side was focused on the Steelers decision to opt for Cortez Allen over Keenan Lewis. In addition to bringing back William Gay, Kevin Colbert needed to make the football equivalent of a “Dollar Ball” type decision. (Now, how that process evolved and who drove it is another interesting question which the Watch Tower would like to look into.)

  • But that doesn’t change the fact that the alternative in play was Allen vs. Lewis, and not Lewis vs. Taylor as Starkey seems to imply now.

The Watch Tower makes the point of singling Starkey out here, because the Lewis vs. Taylor story is gaining ground on various sites and Twitter feeds within Steelers Nation.

Fans will be fans. Passions of the moment and short memories drive sports bar and golf course conversations never mind if the fact get warped – yours truly once heard a graying Steelers fan demand Joe Walton’s return while watching the Steelers offense struggle sans Barry Foster late in the 1993 season.

Fair enough. Let fans be fans. But journalists have a higher responsibility to the facts. It’s one thing to say the Steelers erred in not focusing on Taylor vs. Lewis, it’s another to imply they did indeed and made the wrong choice.

  • And if Starkey thought the Steelers should have pink slipped Taylor a year ago, he should have said it then.

A quick Google search using “Joe Starkey Ike Taylor” only brought up one article between January and April of 2013. In that missive, Starkey mentions Ike Taylors “9.5 million cap hit” but makes no suggestion that the Steelers should have cut him.

More broadly speaking, a cursory search of the terms “Ike Taylor Keenan Lewis” during the same period finds little real discussion in Steelers Nation over the possibility of cutting Taylor to keep Lewis.

The Watch Tower generally likes Starkey’s work, having praised him for sounding the alarm very early on Bob Ligashesky and Larry Zierlin and for having the guts to publicly question the press’ ability to assess any character changes made by Ben Roethlisberger.

But the Steelers thought process a year ago involved Lewis vs. Allen, and Starkey does the discourse in Steelers Nation no favors by implying otherwise.

Quick Word on Colbert and Tomlin’s Drafting

Starkey takes aim at Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s drafting record stating point blankly that they have “failed.” He backs up his claim by citing Ziggy Hood, Thaddus Gibson, Alameda Ta’Amu, and Crezdon Butler.

There’s no argument that those were missed picks, but picks like Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley, Cameron Heyward, William Gay, and Cortez Allen illustrate that Colbert’s cupboard for drafting defense is far from bare.

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Steelers Lose Lewis to Saints, Mundy to Giants

Now it starts to hurt. The Pittsburgh Steelers lost Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall in rapid succession on days one and two of free agency. Both moves hurt the team, but both were expected.

  • Day three brought the defections of Keenan Lewis to the New Orleans Saints and Ryan Mundy to the New York Giants. 

Keenan Lewis’ departure was some what expected, particularly after the Steelers resigned William Gay, after William Gay’s release from Pittsburgh West, aka the Arizona Cardinals.

But it Keenan Lewis defection nonetheless hurts and hurts badly. After languishing deep down the Steelers bench in 2009 and 2010, and looking almost every part the misfit, Keenan Lewis blossomed under the tutelage of Carnell Lake.

In 2011 he rose to third down back and in 2012 he became a starter and with each week he seemed to surpass himself in his ability to defend passes. Indeed, by year’s end Lewis led the league in passes defensed.

  • This is normally the kind of player the Steelers would lock up to a long term deal

But circumstances are not quite normal, Art Rooney II’s protests to the contrary.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are in salary cap purgatory and are trying to avoid salary cap hell – a situation where management would be required to essentially liquate the team to stay under the cap, and their ability to offer long term, big bonus deals is limited.

By all accounts Keenan Lewis’ contract in New Orleans was not break the bank level. But the Steelers are already projecting Cortez Allen as next year’s starter and hence the team’s next big investment at corner. On the opposite side the team has big money invested in Ike Taylor, who is aging.

In a perfect world they’d lock Lewis down with an eye towards starting him and Allen in 2014 or 2015.

Instead, the Steelers calculate that the trio of Allen, Gay and Taylor can give them more bang for their salary cap buck in 2013 while hoping for the best after that.

What Mundy’s Move Means

Ryan Mundy’s decision to sign with the New York Giants was a minor surprise, but as mentioned in our free agent focus article on Ryan Mundy, its perhaps time for the Steelers to cut their losses with Mundy, who saw himself demoted behind veteran Will Allen.

The move nonetheless robs the Steelers of the final member of their 2008 Draft Class, something which Steel Curtain Rising will be focusing on in the near future.

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Wallace Departs – Larry Foote, Plaxico Burress & David Johnson Stay with Steelers

In the end, those who predicted that some other team would pay Mike Wallace the 10 million dollar a year that Pittsburgh wouldn’t were way, way off. That’s because the actual number end up at 13 million and the team in question was the Miami Dolphins, who out bid the Vikings, among other teams.

This contract was far greater than what the Steelers had offered Mike Wallace before his hold out and far more than what Antonio Brown got instead.

The Steelers will suffer without home run threat Mike Wallace, but Mike Wallace is no where near with the money Miami is paying him.

Steelers Far From Not Idle – Foote, Burress, and Johnson Return

While the Steelers never wade into to the free agent signing free for alls, they were  hardly idle back in Pittsburgh. 24 hours before free agency began, the Steelers came to terms with Ramon Foster who signed what is reported to be a 3 year 6 million dollar contract with between 900 and 800 thousand guaranteed.

Ramon Foster had been getting feelers from other teams and the Steelers acted quickly to keep him off the market, as they did with Larry Foote who’d been courted by Pittsburgh West aka the Arizona Cardinals. The Steelers had been in talks with Larry Foote, and are desperately thin at inside linebacker, especially as Sean Spence’s season if not his entire career are in serious doubt at this point.

The Steelers also made what journalists were describing as a “surprise” move, by signing former Kevin Colbert first round pick Plaxico Burress to a one year deal for the league minimum. After the season ended, there’d been talk that Burress would be back, but as recently as Tuesday morning Gerry Dulac of the Post-Gazette claimed that any Burress signing would happen in June.

And late in the day it was reported that the Steelers agreed to terms with David Johnson, their fullback – tight end who was injured last year in preseason at the hands of Marcus Gilbert. With Heath Miller ailing, David Paulson and David Johnson now give the Steelers two healthy tight ends.

Colon Expected to be Cut

Even if the Steelers did turn a few heads by locking down a few of their own players to contracts, the exodus will continue as Rashard Mendenhall and Keenan Lewis are expected to receive offers from other teams.

The Steelers ability to resign Ramon Foster makes Colon, who has finished the last three seasons in injured reserve and earned an average of a million dollars per game actually played, expendable.

The Steelers are expected to cut Willie Colon, but designating him as a post-June 1st cut, which will allow Colon to seek another offer while the Steelers can prorate the dead money impact on the salary cap over two years.

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Steelers 2013 Free Agent Tracker

NFL Free Agency starts at 4:00 pm Eastern Time today. The Steelers have an inordinate number of free agents and they began the off season over the NFL’s salary cap.

The Steelers made some “easy” moves to get under the cap by restructuring the contracts of Lawrence Timmons, Ben Roethlisberger, and Antonio Brown.

But the experience has been far from pain free, as salary cap pressures have already forced the Steelers to part way with iconic outside linebacker James Harrison.

  • What happens with the rest?

At the end of the day it’s a guessing game, but that is what the blogesphere is all about. Over the last month Steel Curtain Rising has featured its Steelers 2013 Free Agency Focus series, where each free agent has been profiled. You can click here (and then scroll down) to view the entire series.

The results of the Steelers 2013 Free Agency Focus are also summarized here – you can click on the bolded name of each player listed his individual Steelers Free Agent Focus profile (note unbolded names link to Pro Football Reference)

Steelers Free 2013 Agents  – All But Gone

Mike Wallace
Keenan Lewis
Rashard Mendenhall
Byron Leftwich

Mike Wallace is the only one here with almost ZERO chances of returning and Byron Leftwich’s chances are little better. Keenan Lewis and Rashard Mendenhall are more interesting cases, but odds still favor them playing elsewhere in 2013

Free Agents the Steelers Must Resign

Steve McLendon
Isaac Redman
Emmanuel Sanders

Many fans felt that Steve McLendon and Isaac Redman should already be starters. Perhaps that’s exaggerated, but these are young players on the rise. So is Emmanuel Sanders, although Sanders does have some injury history. All three men are restricted free agents and the Steelers should attempt to lock all three down to long term contracts.

Steelers Free Agents Likely Gone

Casey Hampton
Max Starks
David Johnson
Ryan Mundy

In the case of Casey Hampton and Max Starks, their return depends on what they find elsewhere. Both can play and get paid more than the Steelers can offer. But will others pony up? Little has been said in the press about David Johnson or Ryan Mundy and it’s quite possible that neither the Steelers nor others will want them.

Steelers Free Agents Already in the Fold

Ramon FosterJustin KingJonathan Dwyer

The Steelers took the NFL by surprise when they signed Ramon Foster 24 hours before free agency started. They also apparently came to terms with Justin King in recent weeks, although no one will wonder why that move drew no press coverage. And the word is that Jonathan Dwyer did not want to wait and has already signed his restricted free agency tender, meaning he’ll be back with the team.

Steelers Free Agents on the Bubble

Plaxico Burress
Jeremy Kapinos
Doug Legursky

Plaxico Burress is a wild card who could be back or could just as easily be gone. Early in the preseason there was lots of talk about Plex returning, now not so much. Doug Legursky is a wild card because the Steelers want him back, but will not bid heavily for his services.

Kapinos didn’t get a restricted free agency tender, won’t get $ flashed at him, but could nonetheless get an invitation to Latrobe.

Free Agents the Steelers Want Back….

Charlie Batch
Larry Foote
Will Allen
Greg Warren

The Steelers have said they want Larry Foote back and Charlie Batch feels wanted too. That will probably happen but one never knows. Will Allen’s fate could rest in the 2013 NFL Draft. Warren should make it to Latrobe, at least.

“For What Its Worth” Free Agents that the Steelers Can Get Back Should They Choose

Brandon Johnson
Stevenson Sylvester
Leonard Pope 

The Steelers can get these men back if they want them largely because no one else is going to sign them unless it’s to fill out training camp rosters.

Follow the Steelers 2013 Free Agent Moves as the Happen…

It could be a wild ride. Rest assured that Steel Curtain Rising will cover the action. Should Google, Bing or Yahoo! have brought you to this page in the thick of things, remember that you can click here to read our entire Steelers 2013 Free Agent Focus archive (remember to scroll down, as this article will appear first.)

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Keenan Lewis Now Likely to Leave Pittsburgh as Free Agent

If William Gay’s return to the Steelers signals Keenan Lewis’ exit, Lewis will leave Pittsburgh haven proven two things:

  • While history often serves as a useful guide, those who live in the present ultimately write their own history
  • Position coaches can and do make a difference in the NFL

Keenan Lewis was one of three third round picks from the Steelers in the 2009 NFL Draft along with Mike Wallace and Kraig Urbik. Yet, it was fifth round pick Joe Burnett that got all of the attention and playing time in what was one of the most trying times for a Steelers secondary in recent memory.

Injuries kept Lewis out of all but three games in that season, yet he came back strong in training camp the following summer in Latrobe. He looked so go that it was said he might challenge for a starting job – until he actually got his audition in Denver.

Lewis flopped badly and took out his frustrations on a sign in the Broncos locker room, an act which Mike Tomlin forced him to pay for. 2010 was tough for Keenan Lewis, he only played in nine games and then mainly on special teams in spite of Bryant McFadden’s struggles at corner.

Keenan Lewis Writes His Own History

By the summer of 2011 most of Steelers Nation had given up on Lewis. History was also against him. A quick survey of Steelers 3rd round picks showed that if they hadn’t shown “something” by the end of their second season, they never would (click here for the comparison between Keenan Lewis and previous third round picks).

A number of Steelers coaches had apparently also come to that conclusion. Fortunately for both the franchise and Lewis, newly installed defensive backs coach Carnell Lake wasn’t one of them.

Lake allowed Lewis to start with a clean slate, and Lewis rewarded his coach’s faith. By the time the Steelers had broken camp at St. Vincent’s Lewis had shown he could play, and by beginning of the season he’d earned a spot in the 3rd down rotation.

Lewis didn’t come on gang busters in 2011, but played well, breaking up passes and making a game-saving interception on Monday night vs. Kansas City.

William Gay’s departure to Pittsburgh West aka Arizona opened a starting spot and Keenan Lewis fought through injury to fend of a fierce challenge from Cortez Allen and won the starting spot.

Again, Lewis rewarded the coach’s faith in him by transforming himself into a one man pass defending machine. Week after week Lewis seemed to make odds-defying pass break up after odds-defying pass break up. By season’s end Lewis had 23 passes defensed – that’s ten more than Ike Taylor and only two less than Taylor’s career best in 2005 (source

  • Not bad for a player labeled a bust after his “sophomore” NFL season.

Lewis benefited from what my friend Ivan Cole from Behind the Steel Curtain has called the “Lake Effect.” Credit Carnell Lake for having the faith and the ability to teach Lewis to play corner in NFL. But Lewis couldn’t have done so without ignoring the naysayers and simply focusing on playing football.

Do the Steelers Have the Cash to Keep Keenan…?

The downside is that Keenan Lewis is budding into a top NFL cornerback just as he’s reaching free agency. In the past, the Steelers have made it a point to try to sign players like Lewis before they hit the open market.

They haven’t done that here. Last summer such a move would have been too risky, and now the Steelers need to guard their salary cap dollars closely and Kevin Colbert has indicated Lewis will be allowed test the waters.

Prior to William Gay’s return, what was to happen to Lewis was anyone’s guess.

  • Dejan Kovacevic of the Tribune Review nailed it when he said the Steelers need to pick a number for Lewis and stick to it

The same logic holds true now, except that the number the Steelers pick will be far, far lower.

  • One of the clear lessons of the NFL’s salary cap age is that you can’t over pay.

Ideally Lewis can and would be an asset to the Steelers for years to come. But for as strong as Lewis has come on, Cortez Allen has come on even stronger, and could conceivably wrest the starting job from Lewis.

There’s no reason to pay a back up starter money if you don’t have to, and the Steelers are paying William Gay back up money.

Keeping Keenan Lewis would be a great success story for Carnell Lake and the Steelers secondary, but hard to imagine Lewis will not command an average salary that trends towards 8 figures on the open market.

That’s simply going to be out of the Steelers price range.

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Like B-Mac Before Him, William Gay Returns to The Steelers via Pittsburgh West

Who says that lighting does not strike twice?

Bryant McFadden was drafted by the Steelers in 2005 worked his way into the line up, and by the time he was playing out his restricted free agent tender he was alternating as a starter.

Following Super Bowl XLIII, McFadden departed to Pittsburgh West aka the Arizona Cardinals.

The Steelers drafted William Gay in 2007. He worked his way into the line up, first alternating with starters, then he won the starting, lost it to McFadden, and then won it back albeit he played in the slot position on 3rd downs.

As a free agent in 2012 William Gay signed with Pittsburgh West….

…Last week the Cardinals cut him, word leaked he was headed to the South Side, and presto he’s a Pittsburgh Steeler again.

Hopefully, however, he will not repeat McFadden’s return performance in Pittsburgh. While McFadden did a respectable job in his only full season as a starter, he struggled in the 2010 playoffs. He got injured in the Debacle at Baltimore and never to return as a starter.

When the Steelers found themselves 25 million over the cap in the 2011 off season, McFadden was one of the first cuts.

Does William Gay’s Return Spell Keenan Lewis’ Exit?

The immediate speculation is that William Gay’s return signals the end of Keenan Lewis’ days in Pittsburgh. Lewis, by all accounts, wants to stay in Pittsburgh.

But he will likely command a multi million dollar salary on the open market, and the Steelers are strapped for cap space. Add that to the fact that Lewis will have to hold off Cortez Allen for the starting.

Gerry Dulac reported that William Gay signed for approximately 1.5 million dollars a year – not dirt cheap, but a lot less than Lewis will make.

Time will tell, but the probability of Keenan Lewis playing next year in Pittsburgh just took a hit. And irrespective of how it impacts Keenan Lewis’ prospects, William Gay’s return could also move James Harrison and/or Willie Colon closer to the exit.

We will soon know.

Thanks for visiting. Click here for the rest of Steel Curtain Rising or here to see our Steelers 2013 Free Agent Focus.

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